National Theatre: To be or Not to be?

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The National Theatre has been mired in controversy over the concession of the 40-year-old edifice located in Iganmu, Lagos. Adedayo Adejobi who spoke to all the parties involved, writes on the controversy surrounding the national monument

Background to National Theatre’s dramatic concession bid…
National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, since 2002, is back in the news, because of successive governments’ plan to give it to private developers for onward development and management. With this, stakeholders in Arts and Culture feared that government has sold the edifice constructed in 1975 for the preservation, presentation and promotion of arts and culture in the country. Although, previous administrations have seemingly tried to breathe fresh air to the facility, but the efforts have yielded no positive desired result, which makes various agencies sharing the complex to doubt any information supplied about the place, especially, the way the contracts are signed and handled. In April 2013, controversy around the use of the theatre site arose, and quickly became emblematic of the fraught relationship between culture and development in Lagos.

Rumours surfaced that the National Theatre would be sold by the federal government and replaced by a five-star hotel. Following the outrage that greeted the response, the federal government eventually made it clear that they were proposing the development of land surrounding the theatre – where the Lagos Rail Mass Transit Project is already under construction – into a hotel, restaurants, offices, shopping malls. The same year, stakeholders in the sector held a peaceful demonstration to call on the then Jonathan-led administration to jettison the plan to turn the place into a cash cow.

The federal government in a bid to push back the pain of recession is on a tragic trajectory in the ongoing debate about whether or not to sell some of the National Theatre in order to stem the hemorrhaging condition of the disfigured economy that has gone pear-shaped because of recession.
Recent calls for the proposed sale of one of the country’s crown jewels to pull the economy out of recession, has met stiff opposition from well-meaning Nigerians, arts connoisseurs and economic experts who described it as a dangerous move by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, should rumours turn out to be true .

When THISDAY visited the iconic structure which was built during the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon, the park was full of children walking, running, sitting, playing; smartly dressed children shooed by their mother, clip-clopping along the pavements; colourful stands selling snacks and drinks; miniature bottles of liquor scattered in the grass. This enthusiastic misuse of the edifice and its surrounding environs reflects some of the reasons for which it probably has, in the last two decades, become a huge challenge for the federal and state governments and a cause for concern for stakeholders too who are willing investors.

Facts on the controversial concession…
The idea to privatise the theatre was introduced by former military Head of State, President Olusegun Obasanjo. The suggestion drew serious opposition from stakeholders and the plan was temporarily shelved. But the fear and suspicion that the edifice would be sold and converted, first into a proposed five star hotel and later, into a shopping mall never fully went away. Instead, it gained momentum with the appointment of Kabir Yusuf as General Manager National Theatre, Iganmu, who formed an alliance with former Tourism, Culture and National Orientation Minister, Edem Duke, seeing the workers allegedly connive with the Bureau for Public Enterprise (BPE), the only agency of government empowered to sell off public properties. The paper works were perfected and they were allowed to finish the work on the concession of the National Theatre.

On August 14, 2014 a memo with reference No. NT/GM/ C14/53 was raised, signed and delivered to Senator Hassan Baratu, former Senate Committee Chairman on Culture, seeking approval to Develop the National Theatre’s fallow land using Public Private Partnership (PPP) model. The memo proposed road shows in Lagos, London, Dubai and South Africa, aimed at stimulating investors’ interest to the concessioning of the fallow land. After the shows, Yusuf said he also planned a “ground breaking” of the project which was to be performed by former President Goodluck Jonathan and scheduled for December 18, 2014. A N39, 650,000.00 budget was attached and the 26 names of officials, on the trip, including the Duke, Senator Baratu, Board chairman, Markus Ishaya and other officials were approved.

In no time, news broke from the road shows in December 2014, as an Arab online news media, Gulf Africa Review (www. gulfafricareview.com) reported that a diversified UAE-based business conglomerate- Mulk Holdings, has announced entry into the retail sector in West Africa through a $40m joint venture to develop Nigeria’s National Arts Theatre in Lagos into a duty-free shopping centre in partnership with the Suzanne Group. The news generated interesting permutations in the arts and culture industry, pressuring Yusuf into denying the sale of the edifice.

With the total cost of road shows exaggerated, officials scheduled for the trip did not travel eventually and monies allotted were not returned. Suspicion triggered a May 18, 2015 memo written to Yusuf by the Governing Board chair, Markus Ishaya, asking among other things, an account of the project. Ishaya in the memo said the monies be accounted for and the balance be returned to the treasury receipted.

Additionally, the groundbreaking ceremony which would have effectively seeded the “fallow grounds” as a whopping N61, 310,247.00 (Sixty one million, three hundred and ten thousand, two hundred and forty-seven naira), and scheduled for either May 20 or 21, 2015, was abruptly called off.
However, the workers began a war internally with Yusuf resorting to threats. Some sought police protection after photographs of their houses and the names of family members were pasted around the complex. Soon enough, the threat strategy failed, and in malice, Yusuf transferred key members out of Lagos. He was later recalled to Lagos and finally dismissed in March, following allegation of incompetence.

Fighting back, he argued that the process removing him was not transparent, saying that all relevant stakeholders were carried along including the Lagos State government, Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) and the Federal Ministry of Works, which led to the inauguration of the stakeholders committee on September 20, 2012.

It is worthy of note that a transaction adviser, BGL Capital PLC, was appointed and an Outline Business Case (OBC) was sent to and approved by former President Jonathan on July 2, 2014.
Following the internal discord, in 2014, seven of the 17 consortia that indicated interests and tendered their bids were pre-qualified for request for proposal. Out of the seven, only three submitted technical and financial bids. After evaluations, Topwide Apeas/Chris Michael Ltd emerged as the preferred bidder and Calzada Nig. Ltd as the reserved bidder. This result was then certified by the ICRC and the two companies have been communicated to accordingly.

Grave allegation of frauds…
Since his appointment as the general manager in 2009, Yusuf has not had respite. There have been several allegations of financial misappropriation, high handedness and dictatorial behaviour leveled against him.

When stakeholders air out…
The idea of the sale prompted furious protests from many Nigerians. Wole Soyinka, whose fable of abusive sovereignty, King Baabu, premiered at the theatre the same year, said “You can liken this to a horrendous fate suffered by the black race, pauperised and victimised by public office holders who transform power into an instrument of repression and oppression.”

Having failed to convince the public that privitisation would be beneficial, but nevertheless still incapable of fulfilling the ambition of the site’s original architects, buoyed by the oil boom of the 70s and inspired by a programme of cultural nationalism and black internationalism, the state has remained an unhappy steward of the site. The National Theatre appears to have lost its status as a beacon of cultural nationalism. Equally with no clear details of this proposed sale made available to the public and stakeholders, the federal government through the Information and Culture Minister, Mr. Lai Mohammed, denied the planned sale of public assets, although the Senate, which had earlier kicked against the plan is now said to be welcoming of a plan to concession the National Theatre amongst some assets for a number of years.

Aremo Tope Babayemi, aka Baba Tee, who is the coordinator and original percussionist for UB40, and also runs a performance space- The Little Theatre, sees the village as a rare example of a community which supports itself; he says about his younger colleagues, Jude Udueni and Shaggy Don: “if they were lesser men they’d be out doing “419” (email scams), pimping, robbing. The government’s threat to concession the land on which the Village is built represents, a failure of management on behalf of government: too much and too little: instead of admitting it they put in political appointees and expect results. They put us in double jeopardy. The presidency is imposing this executive recklessness. Over sixty artists – not only artists but dancers, writers, sculptors, musicians, animationists and filmmakers – who work in the Village see the government as out of touch, “officials in plush offices with no sense of artistic energy.” While the National Theatre stands, in one minister’s memorable phrase, as a “gigantic empty shell”, here in the Artists Village a creative community has been living for the last 20 years. “This is where the content is.”

Worried by this neglect, he disclosed that our leaders’ and policy makers’ understanding of the sector is very shallow, calling on all stakeholders and the art communities to start engaging government, put up advocacy to direct the new administration on the right path. In the words of an Art playwright, Author and Director, Leke Ogunfeyimi, “Policy makers do not understand the art in the first place, they believe it’s entertainment and so, it is not important. We need a ‘Broadway’ for theatres. That’s what makes America’s entertainment vibrant; having full house box office taking from Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off Broadway. Every local government council should have a theatre auditorium with sitting capacity of not less than 500. There is so much to be done to make arts vibrant and relevant in the global village. Therefore, a separate ministry and minister with artistic capability and flair to carry out the assignment would be needed to build the arts industry,” he stated.

According to a key affected stakeholder, currently in court with the federal government over the concession bid, Jadeas Trust Consortium, Yetunde Aina said “I am on the side of the good people of Nigeria. We have been on this since 2002 when the first attempt to concession it started during Obasanjo through the BPE which put out a request for expression of interest. We were shortlisted through the foundation I run. We have done and continue to do educational projects in Africa which we focused on. I believe, I have an understanding and find it a criminal thing that the National Theatre remains a shrine with nothing happening under government. Soyinka and the Arts community went against the concessions, so it was re-advertised in 2007, we bided again, and through that process we came in as the preferred bidder with local and foreign partners, as the earlier preferred bidder wasn’t able to conclude.

Because what the National Theatre should be is a world class centre for the creative and performing Arts, and in the light of our vision for it, it is the theatre that should be the catalyst for the re-development of the wider area. Now on the other hand, the former Minister, Edem Duke decided rather than conclude on that transaction, he went to ICRC and started a separate transaction which threw up Caldaza, Topwide Apeas Limited amongst other companies. There have been about nine ministers since we started. Each of them seeing himself as the Landlord, including the current Minster of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed. The idea is that they would hold unto the theatre, and just the fallow land would be concessioned. The kinds of people who put in bids just see it as lands for hotels, shopping etc like the centenary city in Abuja, it’s like a land grab. The agreement that they arrived at is that they would give money to the Ministry of Culture to renovate the theatre and the ministry would continue to run it in the terrible way they have been doing till date.”

Going down memory lane, “in 20017, the World Bank gave us money to work with the Artists Village headed by Tope Babayemi, Guild of Actors in offering business development support to about 60 of the businesses in the Artists’ Village. It’s a vibrant community with terrible facilities. The theatres are like a shrine. Even the former General Manager, Yusuf told me that there are six Assisting General Managers who earn N450, 000.00 a month in the theatre for doing nothing. Hearing that, I couldn’t ask him how much he was earning. With over 300 staff, with the least earning 70,000 for doing absolutely nothing. They want to continue in that trend. The Arts community I am close to, and the like of Jahman Anikulapo have moved the Lagos Book Festival from the theatre to Freedom Park. Everyone has moved because they will ask you to pay some ridiculous monies. So also weddings and social functions are done there. Is that what the theatre is supposed to be for? The whole thing is just a farce. Is it at a time when even the sports stadia have to be concessioned, especially in a recession and do nothing with it, expecting government to continue paying staff salary for doing nothing.’’

Speaking on the impulse behind the lingering fight for the concession, she said ‘‘We regard ourselves as stewards of the people’s interest. These are people that should be questioned. It’s even more surprising that the current Minister, Lai Mohammed is backing the cause of their interest in holding on to the theatre. Because we took the government to court, the current state of things is that the Vice President, who sits atop the National Council of Privatisation, told the two consortia and the stakeholders, the Bureau for Public Enterprise (PBE) and Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Commission (ICRC) to provide Topwide Apeas. And who is Chairman of Topwide Apeas, he is Senator Annie Okonkwo. He is allegedly also on AMCON’s chronic debtors’ list. When the VP said we go and come back with a resolution that can be presented to the FEC, we held meetings with the Senators’ legal representation and we said let there be a joint venture between the two parties. So, the Joint venture becomes the master developer for the National Theatre.

If it’s shopping that you want to do, you’ll now put in expressions of interest for the different components. What they are trying to insist on is that we should withdraw our case from court and allow the minister to put forward Topwide Apeas Limited, and then they will allow us to renovate the National Theatre. We are saying God forbid. They are not interested in the theatre, if you hear Chris Ogan; he is saying the theatre is a deal breaker for them because they are just interested in the fallow land. We who have the theatre at heart, and see it at the level of UK’s 02 Centre, a world class centre for the creative performing Arts. On that note, we cannot subordinate our interest to someone who is just interested in saloon, hotels etc that’s where we are at the moment. The next court hearing is in January and we are not accepting.’’

When THISDAY checked on the preferred bidder, Topwide Apeas Limted, CEO Chris Ogan, instructively said, ‘‘there was a concession or privitasation bid of the National Theatre in 2007, I wasn’t part of that. And that was cancelled by the federal government because the Federal Executive Council (FEC) under Obasanjo decided that they didn’t want to privatise the National Theatre, so that bid was cancelled. So there was another attempt in 2010 unknown to people, the then minister also wanted to resuscitate it, and the federal government decided against it.

But there was a new concession for the fallow land of the National Theatre to be developed into hotels and world class recreational centres and other complimentary services, because that was contained in the original master plan of 1975 when it was built. The federal government only built the National Theatre. The consortium I head, won the bid to redevelop the fallow land, and not the National Theatre. The case in court is by Jadeas Trust. They participated in the bid for the privitastion of the National Theatre and not the fallow ground. There is a mixture. They sued the federal government on the grounds that how come they are giving us concession whereas they didn’t win the bid in the first place. They came second. With the new minister that came they went to do some back door arrangements and the minister asked them to re-submit their proposals.

They went and did as instructed, and the federal government shut the process down again, saying it did not want to privatise. So she misunderstood the concession which we won and went to court challenging the federal government as to why they should give us the concession of the fallow land, which is totally a different ball game. And in our concession, what we agreed because we didn’t bid for the National Theatre, they said we will renovate the main bowl for them and hand it over to government. And so we agreed to renovate the main bowl only. The National Theatre is not being concessioned to us, and we are not interested in that. I heard the consortium that won the last bid and we received the Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Commission (ICRC) approval, and awaiting the Federal Executive Council (FEC) approval now, in front of the minister to be presented to Federal Executive Council (FEC) to append the final signature.’’

Addressing the fact that some parties are a bit apprehensive of the fact that the process appears riddled with an insider dealings, not giving room for healthy competition and fair play in the bid selection process, most crucially on the premise that his Chairman, Senator Annie Okonkwo is involved in the process through political influence. “That’s not true. He wasn’t even part of the process, I am the one that handled all the whole transaction. He’s Chairman, Yes. But he’s not using his political weight. This was a public international bid, but he didn’t follow it. There were public notices in London, Dubai and South Africa two years ago, where international investors were present with their bids. And a consortium of 17 companies applied. We had joint venture with Turkish firm, groups from Abu Dhabi and Switzerland to be able to win this bid. It was done openly with Ministries of Finance, Justice, ICRC were all involved in the process. Nothing has been done in secret. This was as transparent as is it could be, and that is why ICRC issued their certificate of compliance to us as the bid winner.

Politicians could be chairmen of companies, but I am the one in charge of the day-to-day running of that consortia. So, Jadeas Trust is not in court with us, but with the federal government. National Theatre remains the way it is because the federal government says it doesn’t want to privatise it.’’
Excerpts of a letter written to the Vice President, and made available to THISDAY reads thus: ‘‘We wish to unequivocally state that Jadeas Trust has been very economical with the truth. We find this very unfortunate indeed.

“The claim that Topwide Apeas consortium and Jadeas Trust have reached an agreement to incorporate a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) as the Master Developer for the concession of the fallow land of the National Theatre is also a fallacy. It is very sad and regrettable, that in a clear and deliberate distortion of the facts of 2016, falsehood could be told to you and your esteemed office is beyond our imagination.

“As a fallout from the above subject matter’s stakeholders meeting in the Vice President’s Office, we have had several meetings with Jadeas Trust Limited and have continued to urge them at each meeting to withdraw the law suit against the federal government of Nigeria.”

Giving a status report, Ogan said, ‘‘We sent them an MoU in October, 2016, that on the receipt of the pending FEC approval, we shall sub-concession the renovation of the main bowl of the National Theatre and the construction /management of the entertainment arcade to them subject to a formal approval by the management of the National Theatre as enshrined in the negotiated concession agreement. As you may be aware, The National Theatre building is not part of our concession but the renovation and hand over of the main bowl. We have consistently stated that we have concluded negotiations with the federal government under a Public Private Partnership framework and the bid received the certificate of compliance from ICRC early this year.”

On further investigations by THISDAY, Jadeas Trust has failed to respond to this MoU but rather dragged Apeas Chairman Senator Annie Okonkwo to see Chief Obasanjo, the former President in his house for mediation.

Instead Jadeas Trust unequivocally wants a Special Project Vehicle formed that will include, Topwide Apeas, Jadeas Trust Limited as The Master Concessioners by a stroke of the pen.

The proposed Special Project Vehicle seeks to renovate and manage a privatised National Theatre in addition to developing the fallow land around it as contained in the Topwide Apeas master plan. Not their master plan. However, Jadeas Trust has continued to insist that this is the only plan that will work for them.
Giving a voice on the matter, the Director General Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission, Alhaji Aminu Dikko said, ‘‘The Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC) was established in 2008 to support the objective of reducing Nigeria’s infrastructure deficit by engendering private sector participation.

The Commission is required to regulate how Federal Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) enter into Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects with the objective of achieving better value for money (VfM) for infrastructure services and enhanced economic growth. The Commission is required, by law, to take custody of every PPP agreement entered into by the government and also monitor compliance with the terms and conditions of such agreements. The federal government had initially received a proposal from BPE to sell the National Theatre (Privatisation). Through this procurement, a company called Jadeas Consortium eventually emerged as the buyer. However, due to public outcry against the sale of such an iconic national asset, government cancelled the proposed sale. The ICRC then submitted a different proposal for the government to grant a concession to a private sector entity for a number of years, after which the entire land and all development built on the land, would revert to government.

The scope of the concession includes the development of a 5-star hotel, office buildings, leisure park, a shopping mall and multi level car park. With the approval of the Federal Executive Council, the ICRC commenced a transparent procurement process from which a company called Topwide Apeas Consortium emerged the preferred bidder on December 27th 2012. ICRC reviewed the project Full Business Case Certificate (FBC) after which the Commission issued a Compliance Certificate on 10th March 2016 to enable the Ministry of Information and Culture seek for the Federal Executive Council’s approval. Regrettably, the company that bid for the purchase of the National Theatre through BPE went to court to assert that the federal government had already committed to the company the National Theatre sale under the BPE led transaction. This is the only challenge to the transaction and it was not about the transparency of our procurement but about Jadeas claiming that it had more right to the National theatre than Topwide Apeas Consortium.

“This case is still pending in court although we know that the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, has been working assiduously to make parties reach an amicable settlement. We therefore hope that the dispute over this very innovative project will be resolved as soon as possible so that it can reach financial closure. ”

When THISDAY spoke to Alhaji A. Maigari, Director Industries and Services Bureau for Public Enterprise (BPE) to get the side of the story of the agency which acted in the capacity as Transaction Advisers for National Theatre, he absolved his agency through these words, ‘‘we did our own in 2007 and unfortunately the government said they are taking over. The Infrastructure Concession and Regulatory Commission (ICRC) most crucially the Minister of Information are the best to talk on the matter, as it’s their transaction. We are just helping them to execute our mandate. The minister is best suited to handle the controversy,’’ he said.

All efforts to reach the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, proved abortive, as he has refused to neither pick his phone calls nor reply text messages. However, THISDAY was able to speak with his Personal Assistant, Femi Odutade who said ‘‘This is a baseless allegation, and I am not aware of a lot of these developments and cannot comment on them at all.’’

Conclusion…
With the crash in the price of crude oil in the international market, the sale of the National Theatre amongst other assets cannot be a long-term solution to the economic recession in the country. The theatre reported for considered selling is a cash cow which Nigeria can only sell at its peril, arts enthusiasts say.

This is more so as the sale of such assets will see them going into the hands of unscrupulous government officials and their cronies for only a fraction of what they are truly worth, at the detriment of the whole of the country. Even then, as we have had it with most sales of public assets in the past, the assets had been thereafter badly managed and eventually went moribund.

Moreover, the sale of public assets is not a sustainable way of getting the economy out of recession. The question is, when these assets are sold off, and the recession is yet to abate, what does the country do? Sell off more assets? Can Nigeria afford to continue to sell off its assets to remain afloat? This is more so because of the rapacious greed of some public servants who will naturally think more of how to feather their own nests in the sales, instead of protecting the interest of the country.
Instead of allowing the facility lie fallow and unharnessed, government should mobilise Nigerians to think deeply and proffer solutions to the current economic crisis. The wealthy Nigerians must begin to pay taxes.

Besides, the state’s attempt to clear the “undesirable elements” out of the National Theatre site and prepare the way for a new cultural quarter, may destroy a rare community which exists for culture and where culture exists for the community.

With thoughts of the shaded corridors of the studio complex, the idle theatre with no electricity to light up the place, poor facilities in bad shape not useful to the art community, small workshops, small courtyard where colourful costumes are drying in the sun, audition rooms, the value, true essence of the arts and fate of the artists which hang on the balance.

Until something concrete and long lasting steps are taken to decide whether to be or not over the concession of the nation’s prime National Theatre, the dream, the predictions, will be a wild revelry and hope of a giant and vibrant entertainment industry will remain a dream.